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John T. Driscoll, longest-serving Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman, dies at 93

John Driscoll (right), chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, spoke during a press conference at the office of Governor Michael Dukakis (left) in June 1983.
John Driscoll (right), chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, spoke during a press conference at the office of Governor Michael Dukakis (left) in June 1983.(Globe Staff/File)

Early in his political career, John T. Driscoll had no trouble garnering more votes than any opponent named John Kennedy — dispensing with them two at a time.

He defeated John B. Kennedy and John M. Kennedy in the 1960 Democratic primary for state treasurer and bested John M. Kennedy (again) and John F. Kennedy in the treasurer primary two years later. Not one of those three opponents was the famous Jack Kennedy, though.

That John F. Kennedy was friends with Mr. Driscoll and praised him from the podium at a huge Boston Garden rally in 1960, the night before JFK was elected president. In what became the most quoted line from Mr. Driscoll’s career in public service, Kennedy called him “one of the finest men I have ever met in public life.”

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Mr. Driscoll in his office overlooking the Turnpike extension near the Prudential Center.
Mr. Driscoll in his office overlooking the Turnpike extension near the Prudential Center.(Globe Photo/File 1966)

Mr. Driscoll, who spent 23 years as the longest-serving Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman, was 93 when he died March 11 in his Milton home.

He was among the Irish Catholic politicians who dominated Massachusetts politics decades ago. With the backing of allies such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Mr. Driscoll was mentioned over the years as a possible Democratic candidate for Boston mayor, governor, or the US Senate.

Instead, he chose to stay at the Turnpike Authority, exhibiting uncommon longevity in a job appointed by the governor.

“Governors May Come and Go, but it’s Driscoll’s Road Show,” a Globe headline announced in 1981. Appointed by Governor Endicott Peabody in 1964, Mr. Driscoll served under three Democrats (Peabody, Michael S. Dukakis, and Edward J. King) and two Republicans (John Volpe and Francis W. Sargent).

Mr. Driscoll’s tenure stretched from the end of Peabody’s single term until well into Dukakis’s second trip to the governor’s office. He bridged six administrations, including the second under Dukakis.

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“I think Massachusetts has lost a superstar in government,” then-state Treasurer Robert Q. Crane said in 1987 when Mr. Driscoll, his longtime friend, stepped down from the Turnpike Authority. “His contribution to government is what Bobby Orr’s contribution is to hockey.”

After leaving, Mr. Driscoll was tapped by his alma mater, Boston College, to serve as the “first, and only, vice president for administration,” until he retired in 1997, BC said in an online tribute.

In that post, his duties included directing “construction management, campus security, dining services,” the college added.

At the time of Mr. Driscoll’s appointment, the Rev. J. Donald Monan, who was then BC’s president, said he brought “the perfect combination of managerial expertise, personal qualities, and experience” to the job.

During more than three decades in government, Mr. Driscoll was elected three times in the 1950s as a state representative from Dorchester. He then was twice elected state treasurer before Peabody picked him to be Turnpike Authority chairman.

As treasurer, Mr. Driscoll quickly saved taxpayer money by curtailing the state’s short-term borrowing. His frugality on behalf of the Commonwealth’s citizens scored points among pundits and editorial writers. When Peabody appointed Mr. Driscoll to be Turnpike Authority chairman, a Globe editorial praised the governor for making “an excellent choice.”

Mr. Driscoll, second from left, and others stood in front of a new turnpike ramp on Clarendon Street in Boston on Nov. 22, 1972.
Mr. Driscoll, second from left, and others stood in front of a new turnpike ramp on Clarendon Street in Boston on Nov. 22, 1972.(/Globe Staff/File)

Throughout Mr. Driscoll’s career, he was known — as former transportation secretary Alan Altshuler once said — as “a rare gentleman in Massachusetts politics.”

A 1981 Globe profile observed that Mr. Driscoll was “pleasant, correct, cautious and courteous. For all of his 26 years in the treacherous world of politics, it seems that nobody — not even those who strongly disagree with him — hates John Driscoll.”

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Born in Medford in 1925, John Thomas Driscoll grew up in Jamaica Plain and Dorchester. His parents were Mary Mahoney, a homemaker, and William Driscoll, whose company built hundreds of homes, many of them in Dorchester.

The fourth of five children, Mr. Driscoll graduated from Boston English High School, where he formed his two most important relationships. One was his friendship with Crane.

They double-dated in high school, went to Boston College together, and left to serve in the military during World War II — Mr. Driscoll was in the Navy.

Then they returned to BC, graduating in 1949.

At BC, Mr. Driscoll and his brother William were elected president of their respective classes — John as a senior, William as a junior — on the same day. The Globe reported it was the first time in history of the college that had happened.

When Mr. Driscoll left the state treasurer post to become authority chairman, Crane succeeded him and kept getting reelected, remaining in the job for 26 years.

They had been friends for 77 years when Crane died last year.

“Toward the end of their lives when they were both at home, they talked every day on the phone,” said Mr. Driscoll’s daughter Jean Williams of Norwood. “The friendship never wavered. It was a beautiful, loving friendship.”

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Mr. Driscoll also began dating Jean Francis while he was in high school. She was attending Jeanne d’Arc Academy in Milton, and he would arrange to meet her after school “and offer to carry her books home,” their daughter said.

The two married in 1951 and had seven children. That was part of his decision-making process each time his name was floated as a possible Democratic candidate for higher office. Ultimately, he always declined.

Mr. Driscoll (left) and Captain James Kiloran (right) placed a speed limit sign at the entrance of the turnpike in Allston on Nov. 13, 1973.
Mr. Driscoll (left) and Captain James Kiloran (right) placed a speed limit sign at the entrance of the turnpike in Allston on Nov. 13, 1973.(Globe Staff/File)

“His decision was really based on his love and commitment to his family. Also, he really listened to my mom. He loved and honored my mom,” Jean said.

Mrs. Driscoll, who had volunteered with church and hospital organizations, died in 1992.

Jean added that her father “was the true essence of a family man, a wonderful, engaged father with all of us — seven children, 21 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. Family gatherings meant the world to him.

“He just loved spending time with family, in every sense of the word.”

This summer, in his absence, the family will gather on Cape Cod for a 15th annual “Papa’s Weekend.”

And though Mr. Driscoll particularly looked forward to that annual gathering of four generations, along with family get-togethers each Christmas Eve, even as he got older he “was determined to go out every evening to spend time with family and friends no matter what the weather conditions. There was no stopping him,” his daughter Maureen LeBlanc of Milton said in a eulogy at his funeral Mass Friday in St. Agatha Church in Milton, the morning after hundreds attended his wake at Dolan Funeral Home.

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“We were blessed by his presence and we will miss him deeply,” Maureen added.

In addition to his daughters Jean and Maureen, Mr. Driscoll leaves five sons, John Jr. of Camden, Maine, William of Machias, Maine; James of Scituate, Paul of Canton, and Robert of Milton; 21 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and Peg Vahey of Milton, his companion of 23 years.

During his later years, Mr. Driscoll wrote a memoir for his family and called it “God Smiled on My Family Life and My Career.”

In a 1981 Globe interview, a reporter asked Mr. Driscoll if he had any regrets, having turned down opportunities to run for mayor, governor, and US senator.

“None whatsoever,” he replied, adding: “I just stayed with what I was doing and closer to my family.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.